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Archive for the ‘Controversial Issue’ Category

creation    Creation: How Science is Reinventing Life Itself by Adam Rutherford

Here’s a book title that I was surprised to find is not hyperbole. Science really is creating new life forms. Rutherford doesn’t mean cloning life forms we know. He means altering the structure and components of DNA and coming up with odd hybrids of life—such as a goat that excretes spider web silk in its milk.

The sorts of stories Rutherford tells are the ones that science fiction has often warned against, the monsters that come from the imagination of our Frankensteins. So, should we be afraid?

Rutherford, a geneticist, a writer and editor of the prestigious science journal Nature, and a presenter of programs for the BBC in the United Kingdom, is not particularly worried about the gains scientists have made in creating life. He regards this as “a golden age in biology.” This book, in part, takes the time to reassure the reader that all will be well. To do so, Rutherford even contends that the world’s best-known bogeymen (think Monsanto, for example) are not empowered to wreak havoc on our planet’s future.

Rutherford makes a good case for synthetic biology and synthetic genetics, but before he does, he reviews what is known about life and its origins. We take the tour of the history of life starting with the big bang and Higgs Boson (and the current experiment with the Large Hadron Collider to re-create that big bang), tour the development of the cell (and how mitochondria within cells point to a common origin of all life forms), and move through the structure of DNA, again, with a discussion of the evidence of a common origin for all life forms.

In addition, what it means to be alive is defined—well, sort of. A handy definition is “Life is a process that stops your molecules from simply decaying into more stable forms.” But I do like the longer version explaining Schrodinger’s argument; “Living systems are the continual maintenance of energy imbalance. In essence, life is the maintenance of disequilibrium, and energy as life uses it is derived from this inequity. . . . The entropy of the universe is bound only to increase, thereby ultimately creating a more balanced but less ordered existence.” Sounds almost philosophical, doesn’t it?

Rutherford tells the reader that “synthetic biology means different things to different people,” but explores it by looking at the world as a toolbox full of tools provided by evolution that are then available for creating new life-forms. One of the ways of creating these new life-forms is by altering DNA. DNA is shown to be a “data storage device” and scientists can now alter the available data.

Interesting  discussions of examples of synthetic biology include “Synthia,” a single synthetic cell created in 2010, and “Freckles” the goat, with her golden orb-weaver spider genetic code, which causes her milk to have spider silk in it. Of course, Rutherford discusses the value of these things—spider webs have important properties (they are very elastic and strong) that may be very useful in many applications.

There are reasons for man to explore changes in both plant and animal life. They have to do with feeding a hungry world as less and less land is arable in a more extreme global climate, and with medical advances that will save lives. But whether you agree with Rutherford that these changes are harbingers of a golden age or whether you want everything to go back to organic, it is important to know what is happening in our world. And Creation is a good place to start finding out.

High school housekeeping: I read this book partly because I am a curious creature and want to know about synthetic biology, but partly because I think it is exactly the kind of book that the designers of the Common Core are hoping you’ll read—an ‘informational text’ if you will, one that has facts that could prove very useful to you.

Creation is very interesting and very informative. Rutherford’s writing is clear and he often uses analogies to language and to music to make points about science easier to understand. All of this is very helpful. So, would the average high school student pick this book up and read it, bringing delight to the lives of those Common Core Dr. Frankensteins?

Well—this is a book that many high school students would be fascinated by, especially those interested in becoming researchers or doctors. But it’s not easy, despite Rutherford’s lucid style. Students who have done well in biology class will have a much easier time with the discussion of the roles and components of DNA and RNA. Though not everyone is going to follow Rutherford’s argument for synthetic biology, those who can and do will be happily enriched.

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Until Tuesday by Luis Carlos Montalvan  Until Tuesday

 

 

Montalvan returned from two extended tours in Iraq a wounded warrior. Two Iraqis attempted to assassinate him because he was working hard to stop bribery and a thriving black market of US goods where he was stationed.

 

 

Though Montalvan knew he was hurt, he didn’t get all of the medical care he needed, partly because he was afraid that admitting how bad he felt, including the fact that he had posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), would hurt his army career. Above all, he wanted to be a good soldier.

 

 

Finally, after three years of terrific back pain and unbearable migraines, after self- medicating and turning to alcohol, Montalvan learned that he had three cracked vertebrate and several brain injuries. He was growing distant from his family. His father, a Cuban American whom Montalvan describes as having a macho code, believed that he didn’t want to get better. When he attempted to get help from the Veterans’ Administration Hospital, he was forced to see a different doctor with each visit, one who always asked, “So, what’s wrong with you?” This is the exact wrong treatment for PTSD because strange situations invoke the symptom of needing to be on high alert.

 

What saved Montalvan from self-destructive drinking, withdrawal from loved ones, and a phobia of strangers and public spaces? Tuesday, the golden retriever that he received as one of the first dogs trained for wounded warriors.

 

 

Tuesday was a graduate of Puppies Behind Bars, a program in which inmates help to train dogs that will go to wounded vets or become EOD dogs. It was great to learn about this program and how it helps both inmates and soldiers. The man who helped to train Tuesday had been in prison for thirty years. After training seven dogs—and having an unheard of 100% success rate—he was paroled. What could he do for a living on the outside after all that time? Train more dogs, of course.

 

 

Part of Montalvan’s story is political. He discusses his sense of betrayal by the United States government—both of service personnel and of the Iraqi people who helped the Americans on the promise that the US would protect them. On this, the author has much to say—how the war was conducted with insufficient oversight, how high ranking officials lied about the troops having enough members or enough equipment so that the picture given to the media was rosy (and totally false). Montalvan tells a sorry tale about his best Iraqi friends, who, after devoting themselves to the US cause, were left to be murdered or flee the country and fend for themselves as nearly starving refugees. He also tells the very discomforting story of a military couple having a baby. Before the baby is born, they know she is missing several vital organs, but don’t abort her because the military (for moral reasons) doesn’t cover abortion. Instead, the baby is born, and suffers torment for several weeks before dying—and an infant death was the only possible outcome. The couple splits. Montalvan is certainly making a statement about morality.  Not everyone will like everything that he has to say—but he regards it as a point of honor to tell the truth about his experience in war. He wants the reader to understand why we lost the war for the ‘hearts and minds’ of the Iraqis, and he lays it on corrupt and incompetent leadership.

 

Montalvan also regards it as a point of honor to tell the truth about the violation of the rights of the disabled, especially those with service dogs. Many store owners, bus drivers, subway employees, restaurant owners and more keep Montalvan away because they don’t think Tuesday is really a service dog, although he wears a vest. (They expect to see a harness such as guide dogs for the blind use.) After undergoing persistent harassment, which exacerbated his PTSD, Montalvan found that his new tour of duty was to education companies about service dogs.

 

 

This memoir is both a heartwarming and cautionary tale—not an easy mix to write. It’s one of several good books I’ve read recently about the heroism of our military men and women on the ground and our lack of support for them when they want to tell us the truth about war. But we need to hear that truth, and reading Until Tuesday is a good way to start.

 

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 shooter

Shooter by Walter Dean Myers

Myers does his usual good job with a tough topic. The book opens as an investigation of a school shooting ‘last April.’ Various adults (psychologist, police personnel) interview the two best friends of the shooter, Leonard Gray, to see whether they are connected to the ‘incident’ and to try to find out where all responsibility lies, including that of the school.

Through the interviews, the reader gets into the minds of Cameron and Carla, both of whom are reserved about their victimization by bullies, particularly Brad and his jock friends. In details of the interviews, it becomes clear that both Carla and Cameron have lousy home lives although for entirely different reasons. They are each victims of different forms of abuse, and the needs of both are neglected. The reader understands through these interviews how they might befriend a guy like Leonard. And how both of them are just trying to get through being pegged as losers in the social milieu of high school.

But what about the shooter? After killing his nemesis, Brad, and wounding others, Len commits suicide. He can’t be interviewed, but it is through Leonard’s own words, in the form of a hand-written journal, that the reader comes to some insight. His words are sometimes windows to his distorted ego and into his mental problems, but they also show that he, like his friends, has been abused. He has watched his father physically torment his mother while she just tries to forget and survive.

So who is to blame in all this? The bully Brad? Len—did he act alone or did Cameron and Carla know what he was up to and agree to help him?

As usual, Myers leaves it to you to sort the details. He won’t let you get away without thinking.

Short, on-point in every moment—a can’t-put-it-down for all teens, including reluctant readers.

Note: I’m going to feature bullying books (fiction and nonfiction) and, on the opposite end of the spectrum, books on inspirational people (biographies, memoir and fiction) for the 2013-14 school year. Shooter is on my list for next year’s book talks.

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Juice by Eric Walters  juice

When Coach Reeves retires and Coach Barnes comes to coach football at Michael ‘Moose’s’ high school, optimism is high. Barnes has coached at Division One Central High and tells his new team that they can become Division One as well—with all the perks, including chances at college scholarships.

Coach Barnes has brought lots of sponsorship with him. There’s new equipment including a whirlpool, big screen TVs in the weight room, a massage therapist and new uniforms.

But a new attitude is expected too—one of winning at any cost. And Moose is the new team captain who is challenged to do whatever it takes in order to have a chance at an NFL future.

Another good one from Orca Soundings. Looking forward to seeing the READ 180 classes tomorrow at Chaffey!

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road  One of the comments you’d never see in a professional book review is “The book is graphic enough to appeal to high school guys.”  I hate to admit it, but this is something I think about when I’m reading. Research shows–and anecdotal evidence at Colony High backs up that research–that high school boys rarely read, almost never when they have the choice.

This summer I read a great book–and I mean great in every sense—a literary masterpiece, a stunning work of fiction, an insightful look into a bleak future, a beautiful rendering of the father-son relationship. And–ta da–a book graphic enough that it will appeal to high school guys.

The Road by Cormac McCarthy is the story of an unnamed father and son who are making their way to the sea in a post-apocalyptic world. “A long shear of light and then a series of low concussions” have left the world barren. Animals are dead (or long ago eaten by the few remaining people), plant life is scorched and roads are melted. The air is always gray with ash, as is the snowfall. The sun is blotted out and winter arrives early. All living people are scavengers—and with little left to scavenge, most are cannibals as well.

In a world that is virtually hopeless, it is amazing that McCarthy can wrench the heart of his reader with the love of the father and son. The father has often told the son that they are “the good guys” and while they have to be on a constant alert for others (who might capture and eat them), they would never do such a thing themselves. Though starving and exhausted from their trek, the son reminds the father that the two of them “carry the flame.”  The son always wants to do well, including helping other people. The father knows better and is more wary. Understanding that he is dying, he saves two bullets in his gun so that he can take his son with him.

Some of the situations McCarthy envisions are horrific (people imprison others and eat them limb by limb, cauterizing the amputations) and yet all strike the reader as inevitable in such a world. Too often, I’ve read reviews that describe a new novel as a ‘tour de force.’ After reading the book, I assume that the reviewer was the author’s best friend. The Road is one novel that deserves the praise.

(Another review that I wrote pre-Chaffey but am linking to QR codes. Originally posted in 2007.)

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Movie Tie-Ins: The Help by Kathryn Stockett     help

As I mentioned earlier, I read Worth Dying For because I wanted to try a Jack Reacher novel. If you read my post, you know I didn’t like it very much. As I was thinking the other day about good books for movie tie-ins, I was reminded of The Help by Kathryn Stockett. Since the movie was so popular—and award winning—you might have already seen it. This is a book that makes an easy transition to the screen. Whether you’ve seen the film or not, you’ll enjoy the read. If a teacher asks you to write a compare/contrast of a book made into a movie, The Help is a good choice.

Skeeter, Aibileen, and Minny are the protagonists who alternately tell their stories. It’s 1962 and the three women live in Jackson, Mississippi. Skeeter has just graduated from college (Ol’ Miss) and comes home to her parents’ farm. Her close friends quit college and got married. They have one or more children. But Skeeter’s a bit frustrated as a ‘new’ adult who is being told what to do by her mother. She wants to be a serious writer, and, as many people come to feel at this age, she is realizing that her values aren’t the same as those of her longtime friends.

Skeeter can see how her friends treat their help—the Black women who take care of their children, clean their houses and cook their meals. (Since the white women in this novel don’t work outside the home, and seem to do absolutely nothing in the home, I wasn’t surprised that they filled their lives with gossip and backstabbing. If life doesn’t have any drama, people are sure to create some!) Aibileen and Minny are the help. Aibileen is great with kids—she’s raised seventeen of them. She is slyly boosting the self-confidence of Mae Mobley, whose mother, Elizabeth (a friend of Skeeter’s), is pretty lousy with kids. Unfortunately, Aibileen’s own son died a few years earlier, and she is grieving. Minnie appears to be the opposite of Aibileen—she tells it like it is and has been fired more than once over her comments. She has five children of her own and a husband who is a drinker and wife abuser. She’s known as the best cook around.

The three women embark on a book project. They recruit other maids to tell their stories—to shed light on what it is like to work in white women’s homes and to care for children who will later treat them as inferiors. All the while, Skeeter is wondering what happened to Constantine, the Black woman who raised her, but disappeared just before Skeeter came home from college.

I’ve seen professional reviews of this book that say it will prick consciences. I don’t agree with that. I think that it’s a book that feels safe because the treatment of the maids is now considered heinous, and readers can be smug when comparing themselves to Hilly, Skeeter’s truly awful (and possibly one-dimensional) friend.

Still, outside of a few details that I couldn’t come to terms with—the issue of toilets on Hilly’s lawn was one (Skeeter wouldn’t have jeopardized those Black men’s very lives with such a stunt, and they would have been too afraid to participate anyway)—The Help is an achievement. We care deeply about the characters, we worry about the setbacks in each of their lives, and we are filled with anxiety over the suspense. In short, we are immersed in Jackson, Mississippi, 1962. We’re stunned by what is considered normal, by the way people treat one another. And glad for changes since then.

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     Brothers in Arms by Paul Langan and Ben Alirez

(Bluford Series)

It’s been a while since I’ve commented on a Bluford series book. Brothers in Arms is a good one for students looking for their next quick read.

Martin has been hanging out with older gang member Frankie. One afternoon, his younger brother Huero, who idolizes Martin, tries hanging out too. After Martin tells Huero to get his bike and go home, Huero comes pedaling back to warn Martin that some guys are coming down the street with a gun.

Huero is shot and dies in Martin’s arms. Frankie vows to get revenge for Martin. Martin’s mother doesn’t want to lose another son and moves him to Bluford High, where most of the kids look at him like he’s a gangbanger. Except for Vicky.

Martin, whose life is complicated by his new enemies—guys who hate him for no reason, but who can cause him a lot of damage—must decide about the consequences of revenge and learn who his real friends are.

Fallen is the sequel to this book, so if you are going through the Bluford series, make sure to read Brothers in Arms first!

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